Another strike against libertarian paternalism

by Russ Roberts on August 31, 2007

in Nanny State

In this post on energy policy, I wrote about economists’ role as policy advocates. I suggested it was naive to expect government to do what’s best for us (whatever that means). Rather we should expect politicians to respond to incentives. Not the same thing. And that’s one of the reasons I oppose so-called "libertarian paternalism," where government suggests good behaviors rather than imposing them. I wrote:

Shouldn’t we support having government encourage (not force) people to
make better decisions if without that encouragement people will make
bad decisions? My answer is no. I don’t expect pigs to fly. Why should
I expect government to be good at helping people make good decisions?

Today’s Washington Post has this depressing story:

In an attempt to raise the nation’s historically low rate of
breast-feeding, federal health officials commissioned an
attention-grabbing advertising campaign a few years ago to convince
mothers that their babies faced real health risks if they did not
breast-feed. It featured striking photos of insulin syringes and asthma
inhalers topped with rubber nipples.

Plans to run these blunt ads
infuriated the politically powerful infant formula industry, which
hired a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a
former top regulatory official to lobby the Health and Human Services
Department. Not long afterward, department political appointees toned
down the campaign.

Don’t expect pigs to fly, cats to bark or politicians to act as if they care about us. They care about us if it helps them prosper. If it doesn’t, they care about more important influences.


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